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    Greater China
     Jul 13, 2011

Lee charges stir Taiwan
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - Taiwan's former president Lee Teng-hui, known as "father of Taiwan's democracy", faces prosecution on corruption and money laundering charges. If convicted, the two democratically elected former presidents of the island will both have been disgraced. Lee's successor, Chen Shui-bian, self-claimed "son of Taiwan", is serving a 17-year term after being found guilty on similar charges.

Lee, 88, who became its first democratically elected leader in 1988, is vilified as a traitor by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) he once headed, while Beijing reviles him for his pro-independence and pro-Japan stances. Unsurprisingly, the Taiwanese opposition has been up in arms over Lee's indictment as soon as it was announced on June 30. They say the island's judiciary functions as the KMT's bloodhound, and is chasing Lee to ensure a KMT

wins in the 2012 legislative and presidential elections.

Lee changed Taiwan's politics profoundly in the 12 years he governed the island as president and KMT chairman. His twin legacies are democratization and the so-called "localization reform", a policy that led to the shifting of power previously held by mainland-born KMT cadre to people with local backgrounds.

These two processes put Taiwan ever farther from mainland China. In the later years of his presidency, Lee worked increasingly toward practically achieving Taiwanese independence. The combination of this endeavor and his sympathy with imperial Japan, which invaded China and colonized Taiwan, make Lee a much-hated figure for the Chinese side.

China's state-run media, such as Xinhua News Agency, labeled Lee as "the scum of the nation" who should be dumped into "the dustbin of history", after he paid tribute in 2007 at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which is dedicated to Japanese soldiers including those who died during World War II. Lee once said that until the age of 22, in 1945 when a defeated Japan had to surrender Taiwan, he had considered himself to be Japanese. Lee's elder brother served in the imperial Japanese army during the World War II and was killed in the Philippines.

The Xinhua label didn't do much to alter Lee's standing in Taiwanese society. Now, 11 years after retirement, he is still respected and remains something of an uber figure in Taiwan politics. Lee and the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) he founded shortly before he was expelled from the KMT in September, 2001, supports Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP's) presidential candidate for the January 2012 elections. That's why prosecutors now want his head, say his and Tsai's outraged supporters.

"The Lee Teng-hui indictment is in my mind unabashedly political," Jerome Keating, a political commentator and fierce critic of President Ma Ying-jeou's KMT government, told Asia Times Online in an interview. "Ma Ying-jeou says he is removed from the judiciary and will let justice take its course in a fair and even way; yet at the same time, he directs his lackeys to do his bidding and selectively pursue the opposition with a double standard."

Zhang Baohui, an expert on East Asian democratization and associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, stands at the other side of the spectrum of opinion. "I don't believe that Ma manipulated the judicial system to pursue private ends. Lee's indictment only indicates Taiwan's rapid progress in building the rule of law," Zhang said.

The content of Lee's indictment, which was brought forward by the Supreme Prosecutors' Office Special Investigation Panel (SIP), has been described by the Taiwanese media and is paraphrased as follows.

In the mid-1990s, as a pertinent example of a phenomenon called "check-book diplomacy" under which Taipei sought to convince United Nations member states to recognize Taipei instead of Beijing as the legitimate government of all of China, Lee donated US$10.5 million to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was president. South Africa was Taiwan's biggest diplomatic ally at that time, and Mandela had apparently harbored plans to turn away.

As the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) happened to suffer from a budget shortfall in those days, the National Security Bureau (NSB) helped out by advancing secret diplomatic funds. When at the end of the decade the MOFA attempted to return the money, the allegation is that Lee together with an aide somehow managed to siphon US$7.8 million and launder it by establishing a think-tank called the Taiwan Research Institute, which used parts of the sum to buy luxury offices in downtown Taipei for both Lee and his aide.

Naturally, the allegations could bring about significant repercussions. Although the SIP indicated from the early stages that it won't seek a prison term due to Lee's age, there is a chance the case could spin calamitously for the Taiwanese opposition. Taiwanese media have been speculating that it was no other than jailed Chen Shui-bian who filed the complaint that led to Lee's indictment in the first place. When Chen himself was under investigation for corruption in 2008, he offered prosecutors evidence pointing at Lee's involvement in money laundering, according to reports.

The second direction of speculation is especially precarious for the DPP. This is because at the time Lee allegedly committed his crimes, DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen had been his close protege.

It has all along been speculated how the charges themselves could impact the elections, which are about seven months ahead. Intriguingly, a closer look at the issue makes it somewhat doubtable that the KMT could have calculated that it would easily gain of Lee's indictment.

"It is hard to say which side will benefit," Tsai Chia-hung of the Election Study Center at Taiwan's National Chengchi University told Asia Times Online in an interview. "I think if Tsai Ing-wen is regarded as responsible for the former government, she would not have won one million votes in New Taipei City [in mayoral elections held in November 2010]. "Therefore, it's unlikely that the indictment will influence what the floating voters think," said Tsai, acknowledging however that the case may mobilize hardline supporters of the KMT and the allied People's First Party (PFP) to some degree.

"Unemployment, house price, education systems and clean government are major concerns for the new generation of voters who don't have stable political attitudes yet. A negative campaign on previous corruption cases is not a good idea," Tsai said.

He declined to comment on the allegations that prosecutors went against Lee under order of the Ma administration.

By contrast, in the eyes of Lai I-chung, an executive committee member of Taiwan Thinktank, a public policy research institution based in Taipei, there's no doubt that Lee's indictment is an example of the KMT manipulating the judiciary.

"I believe this tactic by Ma indicates that Ma would like to fall back on the traditionally held fundamental voting structure under which the KMT is supported by 55% of the population and the DPP by 45%," Lai said.

He elaborated that by going after Lee, Ma risks the consequences of antagonizing some voters, particularly in the south, but will revitalize his deep-blue (Chinese nationalist, pro-cross-strait unification wings of the KMT and the PFP) base, which has openly criticized Ma in the past six months.

Ma recently upset retired deep-blue generals by urging them to refrain from visiting China and there also has been increasing talk of an open rift between Ma and the PFP. "It seems Ma calculated that he needs to consolidate his deep-blue base first and then can rely on that base to rally for him," Lai said.

If Lee's indictment was contrived by the KMT, it would have been a rather reckless move. According to local media, KMT legislator Ho Tsai-feng has warned that the charges against Lee will mobilize the pan-green camp (DPP and TSU supporters) who would almost certainly interpret the indictment as a political maneuver by the Ma administration.

A Taiwanese legislative aide told Asia Times Online that the Taiwanese public generally had strong reservations regarding politicians' integrity. "Although Lee Teng-hui is the father of Taiwan's democracy, the news hardly surprises anyone. But of course, if the investigation comes at this time, people think it's something the KMT has plotted," the legislator, who declined to be identified, said.

Lee's indictment isn't likely to be good for either side. "Lee might be guilty of corruption; Ma might be guilty of interfering with the judiciary," the legislator said.

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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